60 Seconds with Mike Chapman

Mike Chapman talks to M

Paul Nichols headshot
  • By Paul Nichols
  • 28 Sep 2011
  • min read
Mike Chapman has been in the music business since the tender age of eight, when he sang on childrens’ radio shows in his native Australia. In the 1970s he co-wrote a string of hit singles for Sweet, Mud and Suzi Quatro with Nicky Chinn, before going on to produce ground-breaking albums by Blondie and The Knack. In the 1980s he penned Simply the Best for Tina Turner and Love is a Battlefield for Pat Benatar, and still writes hit songs today, recently working with Xenomania.

Would you agree that the best hit records are written quickly?

I don’t necessarily think that the best hit songs are written quickly. But I do agree that the most spontaneous ideas are the biggest hits. I have always felt that I have a head full of hooks, and the best ones so far have come very quickly. After that it can take me forever to finish the song.

Was there a time when you thought you could have a hit with anybody?

Yes, there was a time when I felt invincible. Between 1970 and 1980 I was knocking out hits as a writer and a producer at an alarming rate. It only took a few stiffs to bring me back down to earth. But this feeling of invincibility is common among hit songwriters, and it’s an amazing thing that happens. Once you get on a roll, if you have the goods, you really can pump out bucket-loads of hits. It’s a strange phenomenon and there are some classic examples of these kinds of runs over the years.

What did you learn from producer Mickie Most?

I learned many things from him, but perhaps the most important thing was to recognise a hit song. He was sort of superhuman in that respect. Of course I also learned a whole lot about record production from him. Strangely though, I turned out to be a very different kind of producer from Mickie. He never had much patience for the studio and musicians. I, on the other hand, have always given myself completely to the artists and the need to create perfection in the studio.

You wrote (with Holly Knight) Simply the Best for Bonnie Tyler. How did Tina Turner come to record it?

Holly Knight and I had written Better Be Good to Me for her group Spider in 1979-80. I produced it as part of their album, and sometime after that Roger Davies was looking for songs for Tina Turner to make a comeback and my publisher, Billy Meshel played it for them and they recorded it. We then had a very good relationship with Tina and Roger, so they were always asking for hits. We wrote Simply the Best for Paul Young. We played it to his manager, Ged Doherty who said he didn’t think it was a hit for Paul so we passed it on to Bonnie Tyler. She had some success with it but then Tina heard it, asked us to add a bridge, and the rest is history.

How did your approach to writing songs with Nicky Chinn differ from writing with Holly Knight?

My songwriting career with Nicky Chinn was a bumpy one. That relationship ran out of steam early in the 70s and I moved to the US.

Writing with Holly was always very creative. She is a fine musician with a deadly left hand for some of the best basslines you’ll ever hear. We’ve written a number of hits together, and I was her publisher for many years in the 80s. I am sure we will write more hits together in the future.

You’ve been likened to a dictator by Debbie Harry, why do you think that is?

My relationship with Blondie was very interesting. As I’ve said, I was a perfectionist in the studio, and it was extremely hard for Debbie and the guys to accept my authority. I expected greatness from them and I got it. I had no choice but to use the whip to get those performances and make all those hits. Poor Debbie! She really didn’t know what hit her at first.

Whose idea was it to turn Blondie’s Heart of Glass into a disco song?

When we were rehearsing Heart of Glass, the song was a little different from the way it ended up. It was sort of reggae-punk. I was worried that the reggae ingredient might lessen its potential in the US, so I discussed changing the vibe on the very first day. Debbie and Chris really liked the vibe that Georgio Moroder had with Donna Summer, so we decided to give it a bit of that and it sort of snowballed from there. I don’t think any of us ever considered it to be disco. We all saw it as clubby and cool. And it worked.

What lured you into the US music industry in the mid-70s?

I left for the US in 1975 for three different reasons. The first reason was my frustration with not having the same amount of success in the US as I had in the UK and the rest of the world. I needed to be there, to be a part of it, if I was to succeed there. The second reason was I met a girl in Beverly Hills and fell in love. We were married for a while. The third reason was to get away from the partnership with Nicky. I was not at all happy artistically and I needed to be on my own.

Can you describe how you and Nicky Chinn wrote Can the Can?

Mickie brought Suzi Quatro to the UK in 1969-70 and had cut a number of tracks with her before feeling that he was on the wrong course. He called me at home one night and asked me to write a hit song and go into the studio and produce it with her. The next day Can the Can was written.

Do you have any current favourite songwriters?

Bruno Mars would be at the top of the list. I’ve also been doing some work with Brian Higgins, and the gang at Xenomania, for his new act Florrie. I really do like the vibe there. I am currently involved in some very exciting new writing relationships which I hope will start to surface soon. I guess I am more attracted to great songs than to specific songwriters, but the past is littered with them; Burt Bacharach and Hal David, Holland/Dozier/Holland, Lennon/McCartney, Jimmy Webb.

Is there a magic formula to writing hits? If so, what is it?

I’ve never really felt that there should be a formula for writing hit songs. Unfortunately, at the moment, many writers use a formula and I don’t think those songs have real lasting value. My approach is simply to sit down and play. As soon as a hook is floating around I am inspired to complete the task. No hit hook, no hit song. That’s it!